A year ago today on 12/12/12, the fine Trappist monks of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren decided to grace those of us without immediate access to their monastery in Flanders, Belgium with boxes of their much-heralded and extremely exclusive beer, Westvleteren XII. These boxes were comprised of six basic bottles and two one-time release chalice style glasses to drink the beer from. The monks’ intent was to raise funds (at over $80 per box) to refurbish their crumbling abbey. For one day, beer nerds (like myself), across the US had a single goal in mind; to acquire a box of this unicorn-beer. We were assured this would be a singular unique opportunity to acquire a beer that is typically not sold outside of a few kilometers from the abbey.
I expressed to my wife a strong, near-obsessive desire to acquire a box for myself. She along with a small cadre of my closest beer allies set out to surprise me by not getting me just one box, but two. The first I’d have access to immediately, and the second would be a Christmas surprise. My mother was an integral part of this scam, taking two extra hours beyond her lunch hour, at the drop of a hat, to ensure her oldest son had what ended up being the absolute best Christmas present I’ve received since I was a child. My mother probably bought that present too, whatever it was. My mother was not the kind of person that could truly afford to take any substantial amount of time off of work. Seeing 40 dollars missing from her paycheck would not be insignificant and in some way have an affect on how she budgeted for the rest of the month. An especially perilous proposition around Christmas time. However, my mother, without any coercion from my wife, stopped, dropped what she was doing, and ushered herself off to my house to watch my kids while my wife staked out the bottle shop. Her sole focus was to make her son happy. Work could wait. This was potentially a once in a lifetime opportunity and my mom wouldn’t be deterred from being a part of it. From making her son happy. You couldn’t keep her away.
This is emblematic of the kind of person my mother was. After my parents were divorced or separated or whatever (when you’re that age and someone leaves, your family is simply detonated. Most of the legal details are insignificant formalities) when I was 11 or 12, my mother’s life, which had up until then been about her family, was now about just her children. There was simply one less thing to focus on. Every single thing my mom did for the next 25 years, every moderate to major decision made, was either directly beneficial to my brother and I, or was deemed to have no negative impact on our lives. My mother lived for us. We were her everything. Whether it was the car to purchase, the apartment to live in, the hours/shifts to work, everything was about my brother and I. From keeping us in the same school district and around the same peers (even if it meant a Summer being essentially homeless and sleeping on my uncle’s floor) to always making sure we had anything we needed for school activities (sports for me, I think some art things for my brother) to just general involvement and legitimate interest in our lives, my mother was there, lock step, every single day of our lives. My mom had pretty much morphed/evolved into becoming a part of the fabric of our lives much more than being our mother and us being her sons, instead we became a trio. For better or worse, and despite the roles we had to play (and perhaps some might argue, the unhealthy nature of those roles) we persevered.
Her two sons eventually grew older and made lives of their own. We moved out, spent some time meandering in jobs and sometimes relationships that seemed to face a dead end prior to taking off. Adam would likely agree that our lives were a bit out of focus, but we always had something in us that knew we simply needed to decide how and when to begin moving ourselves in the right direction and things would simply fall into place. I like to think we both had some semblance of faith and trust in our own potential that was instilled in us by the love of our mother. Despite whatever challenges (and frankly, they were of our own making for the most part- the word lethargy leaps to mind) we faced, my mother was ceaselessly proud of something about her boys. I know because anyone I met that my mother knew, had some volume of knowledge about the going-ons of my brother and I. I am fairly confident a mother uneasy with the relationship she has with her children, or truly concerned about who or what they are (or can become) would be disinclined to so loosely convey anything and everything about us. No, my mom was proud. For better or worse. She had faith in us, believed in us, supported us.
By the time the late 2000s rolled around, Adam and I did begin to pull things together. Both of us graduated from good colleges (Adam actually graduated from a GREAT University) I married my long-time girlfriend, my brother married his, I was able to get deeply entrenched in my chosen career field and go to graduate school. Adam was able to move 400 miles from home with his girlfriend and make it all work, get a good job and finish school. Our lives as adults had really begun to take shape. To put the icing on the cake, I had two incredible children; my mom’s first grandchildren.
If she was initially gifted with the tools of love and support that made her destined to be a successful mother, it was only to hone her skills until grandparenthood came calling. This is what she was made to do. I’d never seen anything like it. When you’re in your mid-30s and the throes of adulthood’s seriousness, remembering the simple joys of playing with toys and board games with your mother is nearly impossible. Seeing her with my kids, especially my son, brought everything rushing back to me. I began to grow nostalgic for times I could barely recall. I’d get details wrong and my mom would correct me. I became open, willing, and enthusiastic in talking about our past. I felt a responsibility to my son to love and appreciate my mother and our past together even more. Some of this might be part and parcel with general maturity as well. Who can say?
I had always felt my mom suffered from depression after my dad left. She held up the best she could, but like the rest of us, certainly wasn’t perfect. My feelings on that became exacerbated as my brother and I started to find our respective paths. The birds had officially flown the coop and I think that instead of taking great joy in the successes (if I may) she had had with us, she instead become a bit more lonely. That is until five years ago when my wife and I announced that we were having our first child. I will never, ever forget the scene of her dropping by our house after work, and she had barely gotten through the front door when we told her and she shoved her keys and purse into my hands without even looking at me and embraced my wife. While they had always had a great relationship up until that point, that day they evolved into something even greater. My wife was going to deliver to her the greatest gift my mother could ever receive: a grandson.
From then on, my mom’s life picked up some steam. The job she’d gotten back in 2006 was treating her very well, even in difficult economic times. There was a new spring in her step. Tons of offers of advice and help, much of which had me rolling my eyes (as only a son can do to his mother) and an enthusiasm I had never seen in her before. All of this came to be in the form of an incredible grandmother that would do anything for her grandchildren, on a scale and fashion even grander than she had for her own children. I think at this stage in her life, she was prepared to go all-in for her grandchildren in a way that wasn’t possible when you’re actually trying to raise children. My kids, born in 2009 and in 2012, became everything to her.
I think that is the main reason her passing hurts so much. Just like when she was diagnosed in July, I am finding it much easier to cry in the shower for 20 minutes, or trying to bury tears amongst the sweat behind cycling sunglasses, than I am around my own family, co-workers, or friends (though over the last three weeks I’ve had plenty of moments of that as well). The raw pain I am feeling is less the selfish pain of wanting my mother back and more the pain of knowing that my children will have a difficult time remembering someone so special, let alone actually have her here for their activities, their prom, their graduations and marriages – their lives, and that my brother’s child will never know her. Flatly, they’ve all been robbed. I hurt for my brother and his wife who were 400 miles away during almost all of this arduous ordeal, and I hurt for my own wife, who created a bond with my mother so strong that they loved, cared, and respected each other in a relationship remarkably similar to the one I had with my mother. I hurt for my mother, who made it clear that she didn’t want cancer. She didn’t want to die. Of course I hurt for myself too, each crying session I had for the first week had somewhere embodied in it, several audible moments of me saying that I don’t want my mother to go. That I am not ready for her to leave. That I love her so much. So much.
We live in a cruel world that I have a difficult time accepting. One that would bestow terminal cancer upon such a loving person. Someone that truly had her priorities in life correct. My mom didn’t care about money, fame, stature, fancy stuff. All she wanted was to be able to drop by our house 3-4 times a week (or every day if we would permit it, but as much as I loved my mom, even that could be a bit much) to see her son, her son’s wife, and her grandkids, and to get the occasional call or FaceTime with her other son. She once had a conversation with my wife that I only learned about earlier this week where she lamented at the idea that I, her son, didn’t think she was happy. Truth is, she told my wife, she was very happy. She had everything she needed. Back in May, prior to my brother graduating from Berkeley and getting married (both events my mother was well enough to attend, thankfully), I had a talk with my brother about our mom, basically laying down my sword and deciding that although I had fought a long, hard battle to encourage my mom to get in shape, take better care of herself, quit drinking Pepsi etc, the truth is she is an adult in her late 50s and had to make some decisions like that on her own. Instead of disliking the things she wasn’t, embracing and loving her for the things she was. I think for all of us, something clicked at that exact moment that I can’t explain. My father was present and for some reason, that particular weekend they were extremely civil and even talked a bit. I felt like after 25 years of dealing with that, I finally had some closure on the chapter of my parents. So many good things were happening, for this to transpire reminds me that this world is unjust, and cruel. I am trying to abstain from bitterness, but it’s hard. Really hard. I try to find small bits of not what I would necessarily call “positives,” but more pain-mitigators. The last things my mom and I ever said to each other was “I love you.” Those were the last words, the last texts, and I would hazard a bet, the last thoughts. There was no acrimony, nothing left unsaid or undone. If anything, my mom had done everything she had set out to do. She raised two successful, happy boys that are doing well and will continue to. I tried to remind her of this every time the opportunity came about through this whole process.
Much like those trappist monks brewing beer and selling it to repair their monastery and support their lives as monks, my mom’s whole life was about doing whatever was necessary to pursue her passion. Namely, spending time with us. We were her everything. She was my everything. We leaned on each other for so much over 37 years. Sometimes me on her, and often as we got older, her on me. We were each other’s rocks. I miss her so much it feels like anytime I am undistracted by the rest of life, I stand a good chance of feeling, quite literally, like a knife is being twisted into my heart. The stillness is enough to suffocate me. I’ve chosen to abstain from the details in regards to the how, why, etc as they’re totally irrelevant. My mom has passed on now. She had terminal cancer. It was one of her problems that I simply could not fix.
I’ve learned that before this I could never truly relate to someone that had lost a parent young. Now I can, and the only pain I can imagine worse than this is that of losing a child. It’s awful, and I’d give anything to have my mother back. What she meant to me, and to my family is indescribable. It’s a hole that will remain as long as we do.
Thanks for all the love and support through this very hard time. This post is somewhat rambling and not as coherent as I’d prefer but this isn’t about me, it’s about my mom and there are way too many thoughts, memories, and whatever else for me to process right now to make a perfect literary work. Instead, tonight on 12/12/13 I am drinking one of my remaining bottles of Westvleteren XII in my mothers honor. I love you, mom. Anything I am now, or will be in the future, is because of you. I hope you were as proud of the man I became as I am of the mother you were to me.